Reader Q+A: How do I motivate my kids (and myself) to study languages?

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Today, I’m announcing an exciting new feature on the blog—regular reader Q+A posts! 

Over in our Language Learning At Home Facebook community (now 400+ families strong!), I’ve gotten a lot of thoughtful questions from homeschool families who are facing challenges with language learning. In fact, these questions have been so interesting that I decided to answer them here in "long form”—giving me the chance to flesh out my answers and use them to encourage you at the same time. 

If you have a question that you’d like me to feature in a future Q+A post, you can leave me a comment here or email me at languagelearningathome [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line Reader Q+A.  

But for now, let's look at today’s question. Reader Shinay writes:  

How can I stay committed to teaching my child a second language? Some days language learning is easy and fun, but other months it’s like walking in the mud. What can I do to help me and my kids stick with it?

Even if your family loves languages, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to learn them! I don’t know a single student—myself and my kids included—who hasn’t struggled, at one time or another, with the language learning process. 

That said, here are three strategies that, used together, can help you and your kids stick with language learning (even on the hard days): 

1. Set reasonable expectations for the language learning process—and communicate them. 

If we want to be successful at homeschooling foreign languages, we need a clear view of what language learning requires, and we also need to communicate that information with our kids, regardless of their age. 

Here's a helpful analogy: think of learning a language like learning to play a musical instrument. Both require daily, deliberate practice (strategies for that here) and a lot of rote exercises before a student can actually be considered “proficient.” Therefore, language practice does need to happen very regularly—otherwise, students will never reach the point where they feel comfortable communicating in the language. And if they never feel comfortable using the language, they'll never get to the point where it is actually rewarding and fun. 

If we’re transparent about this fact with our kids—explaining to them that although languages require a lot of practice, there’s ultimately a reward for that practice—we can help them understand why we’re dedicating time to this subject.

Furthermore—and perhaps even more importantly—teaching kids that this is a normal part of the learning process can help them understand how learning works. If your child is ages 8+, you could even have him/her read (or read aloud) this simple, but powerful article that explains the basic cognitive processes by which we learn new information—including new languages. Kids who understand this are kids who will be confident in their own ability to learn a language (or anything else)—which is why I think that this is such important information to share with them. 

This is a strategy that has worked with my undergraduate Spanish students, and it’s something that also works with my four-year-old. Now that we’re learning Portuguese at home, it can sometimes be a struggle to get him to do the regular practice and review that I know he needs to keep building his vocabulary. So whenever we use our Linguacious flashcards, I remind him that a little practice every day pays off in the end—and I always praise and encourage the effort that he puts forth towards his practice.

2. Create time for deliberate practice. 

Okay, so once you’ve shared with your children how practice can help them learn a language, then you have to actually do the practice itself! 

If you’re studying a foreign language as a family, including the foreign language in your morning basket is probably the best way to make this part of your daily routine. There are many curricula that you can work through together, and having a specific time every day set aside for language learning will make you more likely to stick to it. By the way, if you don’t currently do a morning basket, but would like to, Pam Barnhill has just published a great new book that will help you make it a part of your homeschool. 

If you’ve got older kids who are learning a language on their own, work out a schedule with them that will include not only their daily lessons, but also 15 additional minutes of practice time per day. That practice time doesn’t have to be grammar drills (although those are fine and I really recommend this series for them, but can be: reading the news in the target language, listening to an audiobook in the target language, or watching a Netflix show in the target language. All of that authentic input will hone your child's listening comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar skills. 

3. Create intentionalbut informalopportunities for language exposure in your home. 

This is really about supporting the overall culture of learning in your home—and making sure language learning a part of that. 

As Americans, we have to actually work really hard to give our kids informal exposure to foreign languages—much more so, for example, than informal exposure to math! While a simple trip to the grocery store might require the use of several different mathematical concepts (addition, subtraction, percentages, fractions, etc.), chances are, it won't require you to speak a foreign language. Because of that fact, the "usefulness" of languages isn't necessarily as obvious to kids as it is for some other subjects—and that can really affect student motivation. 

For that reason, I suggest tying informal language practice to activities that your family already does. This helps make it a habit and prevents decision fatigue. This kind of practice should be done apart from your formal language studies (like with a Spanish or Latin curriculum) and should include activities that your family enjoys. You want your kids to be thinking, “Languages are fun! I can do this!,” so choose something that will fit your family culture and won't require an insane time investment. Could you watch sports together in the target language? Perhaps you could prepare a recipe from a country that speaks your chosen language? Or maybe you can spend next month memorizing Scripture in your target language. 

If you're looking for more ideas, I got lots (for all ages) in this previous post and you can also go here to find ideas for how to do cultural learning at home. 

I hope this helps—and readers, if you have other ideas to help Shinay, please do so in the comments!